Iceland is full of wonder, maybe one of the most amazing is ice cave in the glaciers. The caves are formed by rivers flowing through the ice in the summer, carving out tunnels during the annual melt. Once winter arrives with colder temperatures, the hollowed out ice becomes a special place. I’ve been in several caves during my Iceland journeys but the one we went to today was a special one. I hired a private guide for our group, which is the only way to get there. We rode 45 minutes in a van with huge oversized tires to traverse the bumpy road to the glacier. We then hiked a little over a mile to get to the cave before the sun rose. The hike was long but pretty easy and the scenery on the way was special. There were other photographers at the cave, it is impossible to go to an empty cave. But the photographers worked together to not get each other in the photos. Once the regular tourists appear, the caves become crowded and making good photos are tough with everyone trying to make selfies.
The glacier glows a wonderful blue as light makes it way through the ice. I moved to the side of the can and used an extreme wide angle lens as one of the other guides posed with an ice axe. The person in the shot provided a sense of scale and helps the scene make visual sense.
We walked farther back in the cave where there were fewer people and the pictures were equally cool. Again, having a person in the photo made the shot. It was a special day and one I’ll remember forever.
Nature is amazing and one of the most unique sights is the Aurora Borealis – the northern lights. To see them in full fury is a thrill and we had a great display tonight in Iceland. It takes the right combination of dark skies, sun spot activity and no clouds. There is a scale of 1-9 that rates the solar activity and they predict it three weeks in advance. Last week it was showing that we would only be at a 2 all this week, so I sent a note to my Iceland workshop participants not to expect much in the way of aurora.
Then two days ago when I checked tonight’s rating was 3, which isn’t bad. We had dinner and then went out of town to an area I know would make a good foreground. As we were driving the aurora was glowing bright on the horizon. Once we parked we were treated to an amazing show of light. We had a small mountain in front of us and the green light started on the right side. Then it started appearing on the left side of the mountain. I was doing a happy dance as the aurora danced across the sky. After a while a hook of light appeared on the right side creating a classic Icelandic aurora. We stood out in the dark for over two hours being amazed by what we saw. It finally diminished and we went back to the hotel with a special memory.
The final full day of my Iceland Photography Workshop was spent in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital and largest city. Even though there are a little over 200,00 people, two-thirds of all Icelanders live in the Reykjavik area and it has that small city feel. There is plenty happening in Reykjavik, it has a hopping night scene, big art scene and a top-notch performing arts center called Harpa. Iceland isn’t known for it architecture, most buildings are functional and blocky but Harpa is a major exception. The front is made with glass octagons that look vastly different when viewed at angles.
Close to Harpa is Sun Voyager, a large gleaming steel sculpture that resembles a Viking ship, although that wasn’t the intention of the artist. It was meant to be a dream boat and ode to the sun. It always makes for great photos. Many houses in downtown Reykjavik are painted with unique colors and there is a good deal of street art murals. It makes for a fun stroll with a camera.
While driving to the hotel I went past a strange cemetery, it was full of eerie looking trees. I’m never one to pass up a good cemetery, so I took the group there late the day to see how it really looked. It was eerie all right, the trees were planted within the cemetery plots, very few were between them leading us to believe they were part of the memorials. Most of the trees had thin, tall trunks with a large canopy which added to the dark feel. It would be great fun to be there on a foggy day. There were a couple of cats roaming around, they were pretty chubby and had collars with bells, so they seemed to be out from home for the afternoon.
When ended the day hoping to catch a great sunset at a lighthouse. There was some nice color in the sky before sunset but a marine layer of clouds blocked the killer shot of the sun setting behind the lighthouse. The lighthouse is on an island and it is easy to walk over to it on the beach at low tide. But we arrived as high tide was coming in and the only way off is climbing over jagged rocks, which is tough during the day but very hazardous at night. We opted not to venture to the island but made some beautiful images anyway.
Tomorrow we pack up and head home, the end to another great Icelandic adventure. I look forward to coming back in February!
Today we made the journey back to Reykjavik as my Iceland Photography Workshop is nearly the end. One of the highlights of coming to Iceland in August is photographing puffins, those cute, colorful and rather sad looking cuddly birds. They spend about nine months a year floating on the ocean and come ashore to breed and hatch their eggs then head back to the open sea. I found a spot where they roost on a cliff that is easy for photographers to access. I’ve made some great shots there in the past I was hoping everyone on this trip would be able to get some too. When we got up this morning it was raining and blowing hard. I delayed our departure hoping the weather would clear and it did – somewhat. The rain went away but the wind got even stronger. It was a constant 50-60 mph making walking hard and keeping a camera steady even harder. Iceland is the third windiest place on earth and the other two are uninhabited islands.
The puffins were having a tough time too. The cliff where we get a good close view is a bit of an L shape and we stand at the end of the short part of the L. That is where puffins land about 15-20 feet away on a couple rocks with a good coating of puffin poop. That is where I tell my photographers to watch, when they walk on the rocks you get a great shot. But the wind was too strong for them to land on our side of the cliff. Several tried and could only circle and go elsewhere. They spend the morning flying out and fishing and bringing their catch back to their nests in tall grass. Many were landing on the other side of the cliff but it is too far away to get a nice tight shot. It was fun to watch them navigate the wind and find a way to land. Several of were amazed when one puffin flew toward the cliff and spun around at the last moment and flew backwards into its landing spot. They have dealt with the wind before.
Realizing the wind wasn’t going to let up we had to leave and start our journey back north. We had a couple of stops to make along the way, one being at Gullfoss, a very large waterfall that is very impressive. It is one of the main tourist spots in Iceland and there is always a crowd. It is hard to photograph the whole thing, so I concentrated on a small part. We also went nearby to Geysir, where Icelanders claim the original geyser was seen. Geysir itself is now dormant but one a couple hundred feet away spurts every nine minutes at most. It creates a blue bubble seconds before it blows, which is a challenge to catch with a camera. On to Reykavik for one more full day!
Iceland is known for waterfalls and glaciers, yesterday I took my workshop to the waterfalls, today it was glacier time. I know this little spot where a tongue of Vatnajökull glacier comes down into a lagoon. There is a little dirt road back to it off the highway, it isn’t marked and too small for most people to take a chance to see what is there. Vatnajökull is the largest glacier in Europe and covers 8% of Iceland. It is big.
Driving over from Vic we encountered some rain and wind but all of that stopped when we got out of the van. There were a couple of other people for a while but we mainly had the place to ourselves, which is always fun. In the summer the glacier melts and leaves a layer of dirt in the ice. It is cool to see but not pristine. This is one place that looks better in the winter but it is still fun to see how big this little part of the glacier is and it makes some great photos.
After leaving my little glacial hideaway we drove down to Jökulsárlón where another tongue of the glacier meets the ocean. A large lagoon is there and a short river has formed to drain the lagoon into the ocean. At high tide ocean water surges back into the lagoon and the salty water breaks off large chunks of the glacier. Year round you’ll see large icebergs floating in the lagoon and out the river. When they get to the ocean they break up more and float back onto the black sand beach. As the ice gets smaller it looks like diamonds on the beach when light shins through it. The weather had turned bad and it was raining pretty hard when we arrived. I drove to a couple of spots hoping the rain would ease and it finally did so we went over to Diamond Beach. The light was pretty bad, it was windy and it was spitting rain so shooting wasn’t easy. We still made some fun shots and went back over to the lagoon. Huge pieces of blue ice were floating and breaking apart. It was fun to see and to shoot. The rain came back so we started back toward the hotel.
As we were driving the rain was falling and then the sun came out. It made of one the biggest and brightest rainbows I have ever seen. I pulled the van off the road and we jumped out and shot some pictures while trying to stay dry. It was a lot of fun and great way to end another fabulous day in Iceland.
Toady we made the long drive from Grundarfjörður down to Vic, our Summer Iceland Photography Workshop home for the next two nights. One the way we stopped at three tremendous but different waterfalls. Two of them are well known, Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss. They are too well known, all the tour buses stop there and there is always a huge crowd unless you go extremely early or late in the day. Since they were on our way to Vic, we went at the same time as everyone else. Seljalandsfoss is a very long drop and you can walk behind it, which make for great photos. If you work it right you can eliminate a lot of people from your photos, but it is tricky.
Skogafoss is much wider but you can’t go behind it without drowning. You can get out in the river below the falls and keep some of the people out of the shot but you need to be prepared. I bought some cheap plastic boot covers and gave them to some of our photographers to try but they fell apart about as fast as it took to put them on. When you get close enough to be in front of most of the people you get a good deal of spray hitting you. So I also brought bright yellow micro fiber towels for each person and showed them how to play peek-a-boo with the towel over the camera lens to keep the front dry.
But the highlight for me and the other photographers is a smaller waterfall that most people don’t know about and that is a good thing so I won’t mention the name. You have to climb over a fence and hike about a 1/2 mile back to it. There are a couple of rather tricky spots where you have to climb up and over rocky humps, which also keeps some people out. But once back there the scene is serene and magical. It may be my favorite place in Iceland, I could spend hours there surrounded by the lush green gorge, flowing river and the only sound being falling water. You can also go behind the falls and look out through the gorge and see only the people you came with. Before you get to the falls you are up on a hill looking down on the stream going through the valley. There isn’t a more peaceful place to be.
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We started my latest Iceland Photo Workshop by heading north to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, a beautiful area that doesn’t get the big bus loads of tourists. It is well known for a cute little church in Budir that is painted black and for Kurkjufellsfoss a scenic waterfall beside the iconic Kirkjufell mountain. We were based near the little town of Grundarfjörður just across a small bay from Kirkjufell. There is an artist in town who goes by the name of Liston and I have visited him with groups several times. He can usually be found outside his studio carving stone and his artwork is all over town. He greets me with a big smile and firm hand shake and is always willing to talk with everyone. I’d love to have one of his large carvings but getting it back home would be a major event. He did offer one of our folks to come stay with her for a couple of months and carve anything she wants! In the winter when it too cold to be outside carving he is in his studio painting. I bought one of his larger acrylic paintings on paper and can’t wait to hang it.
During our two days around Snæfellsnes we journeyed to Bjarnarhöfn, home to a shark musuem but rather than go inside we photographed another black church and the beautiful country side. We also went up to the little harbor town of Stykkishólmur, which is a classic quaint Icelandic village. We made the fairly easy climb up a small mountain that has a great overview of boats in the harbor and the town built on the hills. It is a great view.
Back in Grundarfjörður we wandered out through fields to a pretty waterfalls. It was more than a mile round trip and the last section to get close to the falls was pretty tricky so only a couple of people made the final hike. On the way out an Icelandic horse wandered over to see what we were up to. Before getting too close she stopped and did some posing for all the photographers. And she was a great poser, striking the right moves with a scenic mountain behind her. When she had enough of that she came over to check the camera of one of our people. She sniffed around but didn’t lick the lens!
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My annual Iceland Winter Photography Workshop starts tomorrow. I like to arrive a day early so my body can acclimate to the time change and I can get a little extra shooting in. While I’ll be in plenty of great places during the week my focus is on working with my clients rather than my own photography. I make pictures when I can but there are times when I’m helping rather than shooting.
Some of the others arrived early also and the sky was clear and the rating for the Aurora Borealis was pretty high, officially a 4 out of 9 on the scale. It rarely hits 6 on the scale and this is the first time I’ve had clear skies and a rating this high. The predication for the week shows that is the best shot we’ll have at it.
I took folks out to the point of the peninsula where there are two lighthouses, I thought it would be good and dark there and we’d be able to see Northern Lights dancing. We got there around sunset, I was hoping for lots of color in the sky but clouds over the ocean in the west took care of that. I brought a big flashlight in hopes of illuminating one of the lighthouses. It was so windy that doing the long exposure we needed was impossible. I pulled out my anemometer and it showed a steady 25-30 mph wind with gusts over 40 mph. It is tough to stay steady in wind like that.
After it got dark the wind persisted and I knew it was too much to handle so I decided to head back towards town and see if I could find a place that would be better. As I was driving the wind didn’t let up but I pulled into a little lane that I had gone down last summer. I parked the van and the brave got out and tried to make some shots as the aurora danced in front of us. It was about as tough shooting condition as I’ve been in, the strong wind and the temperature around 25 degrees made it hard to even think, especially after an overnight flight and little sleep.
I got down low with my tripod and made a few shots. I couldn’t stay out there long, the wind was hitting me hard in the face, the wind chill factor was around 5 degrees but it felt much worse. It was so windy I couldn’t talk to any of the others and after a few minutes everyone was back in the van.
I’m usually not disappointed with my results but I am rather bummed I didn’t get a better shot. There are several things I could have done but I wasn’t thinking clear enough to make the image I wanted. Mark it up to experience, I’ll get it the next time. After all, the workshop starts tomorrow.
I always have mixed feelings about a workshop being over, especially when it is in a great location like Iceland. I’m on the plane flying home and fairly exhausted. The highlight was being lucky and seeing the Aurora Borealis flickering in the northern sky but it meant for pretty short nights and not enough sleep. It will be great to get home and see my wife Robin and sleep in my own bed.
This week in Iceland was once again a tremendous experience. The people of Iceland are so friendly, it helps that they all speak English, but they are proud of their country and welcome the hoards of visitors. Back in July I met Ludvik Karlson, an artist in the little fishing town of Grundarfjörður. Ludvik carves rocks when he can get outside and paints in the winter. When we pulled up Sunday he was outside his studio carving away. As I walked toward him his face lit up when he recognized me. It was fun to be so warmly greeted. He has a beautiful carving that he says is either a swan looking skyward or a harp and I would love to have it but I can’t imagine how much the shipping would be to get the 250 pound art back to America. I’m sure many Icelanders would prefer the crowds stay home but it has made their economy boom. Nearly all the construction I saw was building hotels to accommodate all the guests.
I’ve said this many times before, but it is amazing how well people on photo workshops get along. We were eight people who didn’t know each, tossed into a van driving too many miles and spending too much time together and getting in each other’s way when trying to make pictures. But everyone is on the same mission to have fun, make the best photos they can, so it all works out. I’m starting to think we should make all politicians go on photo workshops so they can learn how to get along with each other.
Today as part of my Iceland Photography Workshop we headed back to Reykjavik but not before stopping at some great locations. When we were heading south on Monday we stopped at a couple of waterfalls but because of the rain I wasn’t happy with the images we were able to get and we even skipped one waterfall. Well, we got the chance to shoot them today as we went north and the weather is wonderful. When the sun is out there is frequently a rainbow in the mist from Skogafoss and it makes for great pictures. It didn’t disappoint today, but the crowds were there. So I played enforcer, I had our people line up their shot of the falls and I went and cleared out the people in front of us by telling them there was a major photo shoot going on and I needed them to move for one minute. It pretty much worked, there was one kid who didn’t speak English and I thought dragging him out of the way might be too much. But his size added some nice scale to the photo showing how big the falls are.
Then we went to what might be my favorite location in Iceland. Kvernufoss is near Skogafoss but completely different because most people don’t know about it. You have to climb a fence (they put a ladder over it, so it is OK to do it) and then hike about 1/2 mile back and some parts are narrow and tricky. The lack of people and beauty of the hike are special. You can get a special view by going behind the foss (foss means waterfalls in Icelandic, one of the few words shorter than English). If I was able to go to only one place in Iceland, this would be it. The combination of peacefulness, beauty and nature doesn’t get any better.
We didn’t want to leave but had to get back to Reykjavik, although we made a couple more stops. Gullfoss is one of the largest and most spectacular waterfalls in Iceland, but that comes with the price of lots of tourists. It is magnificent to see and appreciate the power and strength of water. Nearby is Geiser, the original geyser for which all others are named. Old Geiser isn’t too faithful and rarely shoots off but there is one a couple of hundred yards aways that blows about every 10 minutes. It is a lot of fun and with the sun getting lower in the sky made a pretty nice photo today.
If I could only spend one day in Iceland and want to see things that are fairly unique to the country, then we went there today during my Iceland Photography Workshop. Since it was raining we started the day shopping in Vic, which isn’t unique, but it is fun to see things made in Iceland. I warned the group to watch for thins that look Icelandic and are made in China. They did pretty good with that.
As we drove the southern coast the weather started getting better and by the time we got to a secluded tongue of the Vatnajökull glacier, Europe’s largest, the rain had pretty much stopped. This is one of the coolest places I go in Iceland, there are no other people around and the view of the glacier, a lagoon and mountains is stunning. High clouds hid much of the mountain but the color of the glacier and sheer size is daunting.
Then we stopped at Diamond Beach, a truly unique Icelandic experience. Another tongue of the glacier comes down to a large lagoon that is connected to the ocean by a short river. Salty sea water goes back up the river into the lagoon helping break off chunks of ice that float back down the river and wash up on Diamond Beach’s black sand. The pounding waves wear down the ice and when sunlight hits them they look like diamonds sitting on black velvet. Quite the sight. It is fun to make pictures of the waves flowing past ice and see what happens when the shutter is open for a long time. I could spend days on that one beach.
I’m also fascinated by the Aurora Borealis, the northern lights. They are such a weird phenomenon, with the colorful display of light glowing at night. I first saw them during my trip in March and was awed and I keep a eye on several iPhone apps that let me know when they are active in hopes I can see them back in Vermont. The aurora is active all year but it doesn’t get dark enough in the summer months to see them. I checked my apps before this trip and saw the activity level was pretty high and we would have enough darkness to possibly see them. What a bonus! Tonight the activity was fairly high and the sky was giving us some major breaks in the clouds so we went to a hilltop away from town to see what would happen. We got a show! Green light danced along the horizon and an occasional red/orange light popped in. We could see clouds heading our way and knew we wouldn’t have long but what we saw was awesome. I can’t wait to come back in Feb. for another workshop when the main focus will be the aurora!
Today for my Iceland Photography Workshop we made the fairly long drive from the Snaefellsjokull Peninsula down to the south coast and our home for the next two days in Vic. There are many things to shoot along the way and we stopped at a couple of the most dramatic waterfalls in Iceland but the weather limited our ability to make great shots. As we got farther south the weather got nicer.
We stopped at Dyrhólaey cliffs and photographed the puffins. They are cute and colorful little birds that roost near the public area, making it pretty easy to photograph them. They fly away from the cliffs, catch some fish which dangle from their beaks and then come back to pose for photos. They are exciting to see and always make for fun photos.
While up on the cliffs you have a great view of the black sand beaches below. The waves and surf rolling up on the sand creates a stunning contrast.
The next stop was Reynisfjara Beach, which was filled with tourists. You really want to be there at low tide otherwise you can’t walk around to see the cool caves created when lava flow hit the ocean. There are basalt columns that are quite unusual and very graphic. They were created when the flowing lava cooled quickly.
Today as part of my Iceland Photography Workshop we ventured up to Kirkjufellsfoss, one of the most scenic waterfalls in Iceland. I came here in March, having gotten out of bed at 3 a.m. and driving two hours for sunrise to find the falls completely frozen. When I was here in July it was so rainy and overcast that we couldn’t see the top of the nearby mountain, one of the main features of the locations. I had hoped to shoot at sunrise today but it was overcast and we caught up on a little sleep. There are two levels to the falls and the classic shot is the lower falls in the foreground and the mountain in the background. I was able to pull some blue out of the overcast and it made for a decent shot.
When the sky doesn’t cooperate I do what any good photographer does, eliminate it from my photo. So I did some tighter shots of the falls and I love the way the water looks when I use a long shutter speed to render the moving water as a blur. The bright green grass adds to the image.
We eventually ventured toward the small village of Bjarnarhöfn, which has another black church. Again the weather wasn’t behaving, dropping a light mist, so I did what any good photographer does, think black & white. Gray clouds in color look blah but they can look pretty dramatic in B&W, so I shot the church with that in mind. Back closer to Kirkjufellsfoss I stopped at a cool overlook and we all hopped out to make some shots of that scene and I was thinking black & white there also. They came out pretty nice.
One of my favorite scenes in Iceland is the church painted black in Budir. It is a small wood frame building that was originally black on the outside because they used the same tar pitch to protect the building that they used on ships. Now it is among the few in the country that are kept black and it looks cool. It sits on a rough ancient volcanic river and the countryside is rugged. The background is mountains, a glacier or ocean, truly a beautiful setting. The only other thing in town is a nearby hotel.
I’ve been here several times and today was the first time there were people walking in. It didn’t take long to realize a wedding was going to happen here. What a tremendous place to get married and how lucky for us to be here when it happened. People were filing into the church and it started to feel like it was a clown car, I couldn’t see inside but it seemed like there were more people than could fit in the small chapel.
Soon the officiant came out wearing a black robe and strange collar and it looked like he was waiting for the bride, the groom had already gone inside. I then saw the bride and what appeared to be her father and family walking up the hill from the hotel. What a great scene. I put myself in place to get them walking into the church after going through the small entrance.
I would have loved to follow them into the church and make photos in there but it didn’t seem like the right thing to do. I went off on the grounds hoping it would be a short ceremony. As I was walking I came across a dapper older gentleman walking on the trails. I stopped to talk with him and I’m glad I did. He was a psychology professor from Reykjavik who was playing tourist with some friends and visiting the area where he grandparents grew up. He told me of life in Iceland, how he lived in New York for a while and has written several books on psychology. What an interesting man, plus he make a great photo.
Unfortunately we had to leave before the wedding ceremony was over but I have some great memories of a great day at the black church.